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Sonal’s Story: A story of resilience from the slums of Surat, India

October 9, 2011

Kate Sachs, Program Associate, CorStone

Sonal stands in her school uniform in front of Sarvajanik High School
Sonal stands in her uniform in front of 
Sarvajanik High School

Sonal is a vibrant 15 year old girl with a passion for life who recently completed CorStone’s Children’s Resiliency Program for Girls in India. In this photograph, she stands in her school uniform outside of the government-run Sarvajanik High School in Surat, Gujarat, where she is a 9th grade student. Sarvajanik High School is severely overcrowded and understaffed. In Sonal’s class, there are 150 students and only one teacher.

I visited Sonal’s school with CorStone’s Executive Director Steve Leventhal last week, hoping to learn more about the girls who went through the CorStone program. Greeted by a group of grinning girls when we arrive, we take some time to sit and talk with Sonal privately. Sonal is understandably shy at first; she has barely ever talked to someone from a higher caste, let alone inquisitive foreigners from 10,000 miles away.

Girls packed into a classroom at Sarvajanik School
Girls packed into a classroom at Sarvajani High School

I ask Sonal what she likes to do outside of school. Suddenly, she is so bubbly that she can’t seem to contain herself. “I love English movies!” she says, barely taking a breath, “I can’t understand the speaking but I read the subtitles. Spiderman is my favorite movie! And also I love Kung Fu movies. Jackie Chan is my favorite hero. And also Michael Jackson. And Sharukh Khan!” She’s very excited to find out that Steve loves Kung Fu movies, too, and grins when she finds out that he’s even met Jackie Chan.

Sonal certainly loves movies, but she has not had many opportunities to see them. Sonal is a ‘Dalit’, a member of India’s lowest caste, one of the so-called ‘untouchables’. She has lived in Surat’s slums her entire life, where hundreds of thousands of people live in shanty communities packed into tiny pieces of land and a TV is an almost unheard-of luxury. The streets are small alleyways filled with garbage and human waste. Being outside is highly unsafe, especially for a young girl.

Sonal is well aware of these realities. “The area where I stay is very bad,” she tells us, “Even if you have a full body covering, you shouldn’t go outside.” Many of the boys start drinking at an early age and alcoholism, sexual harassment and sexual assault are facts of daily life. “There are many fights on the streets and there is a lot of theft. There is even murder,” Sonal says truthfully.

Women walk through a Surat slum
Women walk past a home 
in a Surat slum

“Recently I was having fear,” Sonal says quietly. “I have been having a brain problem. I was feeling like crying all the time. Some days I feel like, ‘I will die today’.” Sonal’s anxiety levels have been high throughout her life and she has already developed a number of nervous habits. “I have a habit of drinking a lot of water until my stomach is in a lot of pain. I have to go to the bathroom many times but my stomach still hurts. I do the same thing repeatedly due to tension,” she tells us. “I was having fear that I can’t face this problem. I was feeling sad. Every time I thought about it I would start crying.” Sonal has been under a doctor’s care for these problems but until now has seen minimal improvement.

However, Sonal no longer feels that the situation is hopeless. After participating in CorStone’s Children’s Resiliency Program for Girls, Sonal feels that her anxiety, sadness and physical pain have drastically decreased. “Now I feel better. I learned that even if someone is giving me pain, I can forgive them. I need to live with love. No one should be hurting another person.”

Against all odds, instead of conforming to community norms of hopelessness and violence, Sonal is growing up to become a strong and self-assured young woman. As a result of the CorStone program, she has internalized a language that empowers her to make change and is able to identify positive activities (“I really enjoy writing. English is my favorite subject!”), as well as positive forces in her life that she can draw upon in times of crisis (“My parents are good. They love me very much and support me in my learning”). Though she’s still deciding on her path, she thinks that scientific research might really interest her.

Please help us to bring hope and change to girls like Sonal living in desperate conditions in urban slums in India. It only takes $20/month or $240/year to become a GiveStart sponsor. With your help, together we can empower these girls with the skills and training they need to improve their lives. For more information or to donate: www.corstone.org.

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